Still Life History: A place at the table

Hanna Pauli (1864-1940), Breakfast-Time (detail) (1887), oil on canvas, 87 x 91 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Having completed my historical survey of still life paintings, we can draw from those some of the lasting themes within the genre, and trace their development in detail. This article opens this next phase by looking at a selection of paintings of tables set for meals.

As we’ve seen throughout this series, depictions of food of various kinds, from apples to fish and game, have been some of the most popular since the inception of still life painting. Soon after these paintings started to appear, some showed not so much the food as the place at the meal table where it would be consumed.

Clara Peeters (c 1594-1640), Mesa (Table) (c 1611), oil on panel, 55 x 73 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Clara Peeters’ Table from about 1611 is an early example, which also incorporates surfaces with different optical properties to form a showpiece.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618) [3], oil on canvas, 100.5 x 119.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.
In Spain, these were taken up in bodegone, of which the best-known are some of the early paintings by Diego Velázquez, such as his brilliant Old Woman Frying Eggsfrom 1618. He too includes a much wider range of reflective and transparent objects, including bright reflections on the flask of wine, the cooking pot for the eggs, and the mortar and pestle.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Peasants at Table (1618-19) [6], oil on canvas, 96 x 112 cm, Szépmüvészeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.
Slightly later, in 1618-19, Velázquez reworked his older motif of Three Men at Table into this Peasants at Table, which is tightly cropped on the three figures.

Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne - La table d'office ou Les apprêts d'un déjeuner 1756 - Jean-Siméon Chardin - Joconde04400000593
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), The Kitchen Table or Preparations for Lunch (1756), oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over a century later, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin reworked the theme to the preparation of food prior to the meal, in The Kitchen Table or Preparations for Lunch from 1756. This is extended to a small occasional table at the right, and contains a standard array of objects with interesting optical properties, such as silverware, glass, and glazed pottery.

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904), Still Life: Corner of a Table (1873), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Without knowing the full story behind Henri Fantin-Latour’s Still Life: Corner of a Table (1873), this might appear to follow the theme. In fact this was an artistic rejoinder to one of his less successful group portraits.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), oil on canvas, 130.2 x 175.6 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir’s masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he painted from the summer of 1880 well into the following year, insets a still life of a meal table with a social gathering, as a development of the bodegone of Velázquez, perhaps.

Hanna Pauli (1864-1940), Breakfast-Time (1887), oil on canvas, 87 x 91 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later the 23-year-old Swedish painter Hanna Pauli made the meal table the centrepiece of her virtuoso painting of Breakfast-Time (1887). She again uses it as a demonstration of her skills in depicting the reflective surfaces of silverware, porcelain and abundant glassware.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Breakfast under the Arbour (1908), oil on board on cradled panel, 63.9 x 48.9 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In the early twentieth century, Pierre Bonnard painted laid-out tables as a form of still life. In 1908 these became more frequent, as in this Breakfast under the Arbour from that year.

Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939), The Table, Spring (1913), oil on canvas, 60.5 x 73.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, Henri Le Sidaner started to paint what turned out to be a whole series of meal tables set in landscapes. The Table, Spring from 1913 is an early example, with a range of drinks laid out for one person in the foreground of a gently rolling country landscape in Spring.

Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939), Autumn Table (1910-20), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

His Autumn Table, painted some time in the decade 1910-20, is laid out for two, with a fruit bowl to suit the season as well as drinks, and the façade of a large house, probably Le Sidaner’s, behind.

Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928), Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand (c 1921), oil on board, 81.9 x 100.4 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Nikolai Astrup’s peek into his domestic life, Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand was painted in about 1921. There’s a tapestry hanging in the corner, an unidentified painting on the wall, potted plants, a bowl of fruit, and an articulated wooden figure leaning against a pitcher of milk.

Hodgkins, Frances, 1869-1947; Still Life: Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms
Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947), Still Life Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms (c 1929), oil on canvas, 64 x 53 cm, Brighton and Hove Museums & Art Galleries, Brighton, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins followed Chardin’s example in her Still Life Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms, completed in 1929, showing the preparation rather than consumption of the meal.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Breakfast Room (Dining Room Overlooking the Garden) (1930-31), oil on canvas, 159.7 x 113.98 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard set the breakfast table into his best-developed framed external view, The Breakfast Room (Dining Room Overlooking the Garden) from 1930-31. This combines the still life of the laid table in the foreground, the powerful vertical framing of French windows, and the rich terrace landscape beyond.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth (1930-35), watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, 31.1 x 24 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

His Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth (1930-35) is another example.

Tjalf Sparnaay (1954-), Sandwich Ham-Egg (2014), oil on canvas, 95 x 150 cm, location not known. Courtesy of the artist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most recently, the hyper-realist detail of Tjalf Sparnaay’s Sandwich Ham-Egg (2014) does for modern fast food what Clara Peeters had started four centuries previously.